Design and documentation journal for my interactive fiction (text games); also reviews and other miscellaneous stuff.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

IF Reviews: What an Author Wants

There's been a lot of talk since the October comp about who reviews are FOR in the community, and how nice someone should be when writing. I basically think that transcripts and beta-testing are for the author, and reviews are for the players.

That is: in development, an author needs a clear vision of how she wants the game to go over, both objectively (bugs, hunt-the-verb, hunt-the-noun, communication of facts) and subjectively (difficulty, ease of understanding, pleasure of reading, communication of themes and story). I think transcripts are a tremendous boon to the former, and helpful to the latter. For the rest, the author needs to either communicate his needs to his beta testers, or suss it out from comments. You need a significant sample size to get a feel for whether players in general find the game difficult, whether they like the writing/setting/story, and what bits need fixing.

A review is a single report of what the player finds significant, which is almost guaranteed not to match up to what the author wants to know. I have no way of knowing what the author wants unless she put in an ABOUT command. Did she want it to be funny? Poignant? Nostalgic? Did she want the player to struggle with the puzzles, or breeze through? Did she want the player to notice the multitude of Shakespearean quotes and winks throughout?

Authors should be seeking out constructive criticism, rather than expecting it to come pretailored in reviews.

So that's where I draw the line. It feels presumptuous of me to review something with the intended audience of an author without being invited to do so personally, and without any idea of what he wants. It comes perilously close to "fix this game so I like it" territory. While often I have something specific to advise, sometimes it's just general distaste, or unease, or dull, exhausted rage.*

What I want from a review as an author is not entirely different from what I want as a player; this is especially true for "literary" works, where I'm interested in the reviewers interpretation of themes and characters, how smooth gameplay was, where the game fell short. Here's the crucial different, though:

As an author, I'm interested in the player's experience in and of itself. The goal is that person's enjoyment.
As a player, I'm interested in my own enjoyment, and in the ability to translate that review into the likely play experience I'd have.

I'm going to start playing and posting transcripts of randomly chosen games from the IFDB at frequent intervals. It's essentially an exercise for me, but also an opportunity for other writers. I wish more people put up their transcripts; I think understanding how people (lots of people) are playing IF is important for writing well.

*Mazes, people. Take them out.

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